Saturday, August 15, 2009

Liverpool FC Boss Happy To Put His Cards On The Table

As a connoisseur of tactical intricacy, it was simply too good an opportunity to miss for Rafael Benitez. When pressed by the gathered media to explain whether the signing of Alberto Aquilani would mean any change in Liverpool’s playing style, the Anfield manager assumed centre stage.

With dictaphones substituting for midfielders and a table top replicating the playing field, what followed was an entertaining, in-depth demonstration of how the Italian would fit into the grand scheme.

Besides illustrating Benitez’s love of a good prop or two, it underlined the versatility of Aquilani and how his manager is already plotting on getting the best out of his £20m acquisition.

“Alberto is a player who has quality, game intelligence and can pass the ball quickly,” says Benitez. “He can play more offensive than Alonso did in the final third, and he has more accuracy in his final pass.

“He can score goals from distance too, but he can also drop back and play alongside Mascherano and Lucas because he is a hard worker.

“It could be that we use a different system a bit, depending on Alberto’s characteristics. We will have different options of how to play going forward.

“We have Mascherano and Lucas both playing really well, with Gerrard in front. He can play instead of any of them.

“He can play as second striker if necessary, but his best position will be between Gerrard and Mascherano – or between Lucas and Gerrard.”

Of course, with Aquilani still recovering from a summer ankle operation, Liverpool supporters will have to wait a while before getting a glimpse of the new arrival.

Signing a player with an injury was frowned upon by many, but Benitez has reiterated he is not taking a gamble on the Italy international.

“With the problems he has had, especially the ankle, we had to check everything,” says the Liverpool manager. “The medical staff did their job and they feel we can manage right now.

“The most important thing is the ankle, he had an operation on it, so we are working on that. But in the meantime we are working on the other things too and he can get better.

“We’ve signed players who have had problems in the past, but only because the medical staff have been confident they will be okay.

“It’s difficult to say when he will be able to play. He’s been working hard from the first day on Monday, but we think he should be back between one and two months.”

Indeed, Benitez believes being out of the spotlight will benefit Aquilani as he grapples with life at a new club in a new country.

“Maybe it can help Alberto that he won’t be thrown straight into the first team,” he says. “It’s never easy to settle down at a new club in a new country, so if he had to play straight away it would be difficult for him and people might start talking about him not being ready.

“We were playing Oldham in a friendly on Wednesday and he watched with me. We spoke about pre-season, the roles of players and he knows now. Not playing straight away will also give him a chance to improve his English, and that will make it easier.”

Aquilani, however, does not entirely share such an opinion.

“Waiting for my first game will definitely be my most difficult period,” says the 25-year-old. “My worry was this injury and the fact that I wouldn’t be able to play at first.

“But I’m doubly happy to be here because of the possibility of getting better properly. I have had a very thorough medical and the doctors have seen what the problem is.

“In Italy I had already started to work a little, but here the doctors have told me not to rush into my recovery, to get better and avoid having to stop again later on.

“It is a shame that I can’t play straight away, but I’m going to be working very hard at this in order to avoid problems in the future.”

As a boyhood Roma fan, Liverpool have already formed a significant part of Aquilani’s football education, having been brought up on tales of the European Cup final between the two clubs in 1984 – a game which took place six weeks before the midfielder was born.

And Aquilani has also been given a crash course in Anfield history by a former Roma team-mate who spent seven years at the club.

“Obviously I am a friend of John Arne Riise’s and he’s spoken a lot about Liverpool to me,” says Aquilani. “I’ve spoken to him about the Kop and the great fans and I can’t wait to start.

“I have never played at Anfield but I have heard a lot about the unique atmosphere you breathe there.

“Rafa Benitez was very important in me coming here. Riise spoke very well of him and said he could help me grow as a player.

“I was already aware and appreciated his work even before the opportunity arose to come here. I like the way the team plays and certainly it was a deciding factor.

“I’m very proud Rafa chose me. I also want to thank (Liverpool chief scout) Eduardo Macia, who was very important.”

The track record of Italians at Anfield is not great. On-loan Daniele Padelli convinced nobody during his solitary performance in goal two years ago while Andrea Dossena has struggled since arriving

Aquilani, though, is confident he can buck that particular trend and has already started to become accustomed to his new surrounds.

“I’ve had a drive around the city centre and some other areas,” he says. “Liverpool seems a comfortable city and appears to offer everything. I don’t think I’ll have a problem fitting in.”

And if Aquilani proves as adept as those dictaphones, it will be £20m well spent.

Liverpool Look To End Title Drought

If ever there was a summer when a little fine-tuning was all that was needed at Anfield, this was it. Having seen his Liverpool team finish second, only four points behind Manchester United last season, the closest they have come to winning the league title since their last success in 1990, Rafael Benítez expected a quiet summer, unaware of the knock-on effects of the imminent spending sprees at Real Madrid and, indirectly, Manchester City.

Real’s summer-long pursuit of Xabi Alonso has been a tortuous saga, but, for Liverpool, the more serious issue has been the effect on Benítez’s team. The issue has complicated the Liverpool manager’s plans for the new campaign and forced him to shift his priorities from the forward line to scouring Europe for replacements for Alonso.

The unrest over the Spain midfield player would have been easier for Benítez to stomach had he been able to sign Gareth Barry, the player with whom he tried to replace Alonso 12 months earlier, but instead the England midfield player joined City in June, leaving the Liverpool manager to accuse him of moving “only for the money”.

The question is whether a summer of instability, which has also included Álvaro Arbeloa joining Real and Javier Mascherano floating the unpopular idea of moving to Barcelona, has damaged Liverpool’s hopes of improving on last season. That performance might be hard to repeat, but reasons to be cheerful include the signing of Glen Johnson from Portsmouth and the assumption that Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres should get a clearer run with injuries, with Torres starting only 20 league games last season.

The concern is that Liverpool achieved the extraordinary feat of beating Chelsea and Manchester United at home and away last season and still came up narrowly short, largely because of their struggle to overcome stubborn opponents such as Stoke City and Hull City at Anfield. The only pressing need this summer was to find a player with the flair to unlock those packed defences, but, as with everything at Liverpool these days, the situation has become complicated. That long-awaited nineteenth title remains a possibility, but it will not be as straightforward as Benítez had hoped.

Torres - No Excuses For Reds

Fernando Torres believes Liverpool have the talent and experience to end their long wait for a Premier League title.

The Reds have been tipped to mount another strong challenge after finishing just four points behind champions Manchester United last season.

Rafa Benitez's men had a good record against the other top teams in 2008/9 and Torres insists he is not worried about the clashes with United and Chelsea.

He feels Liverpool can make up the difference by claiming wins rather than draws in some of the other tricky fixtures, and he is targeting a fast start at Tottenham on Sunday.

"We have no problem beating Manchester United or Chelsea but it is games like Sunday's at Tottenham where we need to show our real title intentions," the Spaniard told The Sun.

"Tottenham is not an easy place to go but these are games we must be winning if this is to finally be our year."

Torres is convinced that Liverpool can win the title and admits it would be devastating for both the players and supporters to miss out again.

He said: "I am not thinking can we win the title, I am thinking we have to win the title.

"We came so close last season but for many of the players it was their first time experiencing the pressure of a Premier League title race.

"We have experience and if we don't bring the title back to Anfield I won't be offering up any excuses at the end of the season.

"We don't need to improve a lot on last season to win the title. There is only a slight improvement needed to give the fans and players the title they have wanted for so many years now.

"This is the best Liverpool team there has been in years, that is what many of the experienced players are saying.

"Now is our time. Second best is just not going to cut it with me any more."

Rafa Benitez: Aquilani Has Better Killer Pass Than Xabi Alonso & We Want To Sign A Forward

Liverpool have signed Alberto Aquilani from Roma in the wake of Xabi Alonso's move to Real Madrid, and Reds gaffer Rafael Benitez is only too keen to hype the Italian midfielder.

"For the final pass, Aquilani has more accuracy than Xabi," Benitez told a press conference.

"We tried very hard to keep Xabi, but he made it clear he wanted to go and we have to defend Liverpool. We are professionals. He had a fantastic year, but he wanted to go."

However, many keen followers of the Anfield giants are worried about Aquilani's fitness - something which doesn't overly concern ‘Rafa’.

"We know he had some problems with his ankle, but the doctors analysed him and I am 100 per cent sure he will do well here," he said.

Looking over his shoulder at this season's potential breakthrough side - free-spending Manchester City - Benitez believes that the money Liverpool have spent is justified, and that more needs to go on another attacking option as soon as possible.

"Man City are spending money; we had to bring in quality, and [Glen] Johnson is a good player," he said of 'Pool's new right-back. "We will now look for someone to help [Fernando] Torres and [Steven] Gerrard.

"The idea of winning the Premier League every year is hard. City are doing really well because they are signing players with Premier League quality, so they will be a threat to us and Manchester United."

Looking forward to his side's first league game against Tottenham Hotspur, the boss hopes that his injury doubts recover in time, and is aware that former Reds, Peter Crouch and Robbie Keane, will be keen to haunt him.

"Gerrard is OK and Martin Skrtel is working hard. We have to be ready for the first game,” he said.

"Crouch and Keane are good players and good luck to them... but not when they play against us!

"Tottenham are a good team and Harry [Redknapp, Spurs boss] has done a good job. They, Aston Villa and City will be tough this season. We want to win things, but we have to start with Tottenham and three points."

Top 10 Things To Expect In England This Season

With the new campaign almost upon us,’s Mike Maguire takes a light-hearted look at 10 things that are certain to take place in the 2009-10 season.

10) Newcastle continue their Leeds impersonation

They’re in the Championship, their best players have jumped ship, and nobody can be arsed rescuing Mike Ashley from the mess he’s made. These Magpies hope to fly straight back up to the Premier League, but a free-fall into League One is just as likely. On the bright side, Joey Barton will win the league’s Player of the Year Award, despite spending six months behind bars for various acts of Joey Barton-ness.

9) Spurs sack Harry Redknapp after horror start

Tottenham Hotspur is a club steeped in tradition, and there is no more prevalent one than the annual early-season manager swap. With the Champions League hopefuls conceding 34 goals in the first six weeks of the season, chairman Daniel Levy will bring down the axe – and Redknapp will return to Portsmouth, with Jermain Defoe and Peter Crouch in tow.

8) Burnley do a Hull – or a Derby

Apparently, there is no safe middle path for the Clarets to follow on their return to the top flight after an absence of more than three decades. Either they will jump out of the blocks and challenge for the top spots before slipping back into the pack, or they will be relegated by January.

7) Ryan Giggs wins Ballon d’Or

After claiming the PFA Player of the Year award the previous season, the Welsh veteran builds on this superb form to be named the finest footballer in all of Europe – despite only making three starts in all competitions. Lionel Messi, already with 30 goals under his belt halfway through the Primera Division season, will have to wait another year.

6) Gerrard vs. Lampard... vs. Delph

After a six-out-of-ten performance off the bench on his Premier League debut with Aston Villa, Fabian Delph will be declared the future of England’s midfield and touted as a given to travel to the 2010 World Cup. When a slightly mistimed tackle results in an unfortunate dismissal on his second outing, he will be dubbed the ‘new Joey Barton’ and immediately scratched out of Fabio Capello’s first XI.

5) Arsene Wenger’s vision fails him yet again

The Arsenal manager will profess that he did not see Cesc Fabregas repeatedly punch the referee in the spleen before pulling down the poor fella’s shorts, kicking him in the rump, taking photos on his iPhone of the official’s stud-marked buttocks and posting them on his Facebook page – all on his way to scoring a highly controversial goal.

4) Manchester City buy all the remaining strikers in England

With his sitting in the lower half of the table come Christmas, Mark Hughes decides that attacking reinforcements are essential. Never mind that the Sky Blues are leading the scoring the charts – in come Fernando Torres, Didier Drogba and the rest of the Premier League’s marksmen. Carlos Tevez, with 17 goals in as many substitute appearances at the turn of the year, is assured that his place on the bench is secure.

3) Michael Owen receives a, erm... ‘warm’ Anfield welcome

Liverpool’s arch-traitor will venture off the sidelines for a rare run-out on his old stomping ground with Man United. He’ll limp off after 15 minutes – to rousing applause – but not before netting a quick-fire treble at the Kop end. Just like old times... except back then, Mickey didn’t play with bodyguards encircling him.

2) Press call for Capello’s head, but England enter World Cup as clear favourites

Regardless of what sort of form the Three Lions bring to South Africa, the tabloids will have them pegged as near certainties to take home their second World Cup – despite demanding that ‘Don Fabio’ be deported following a meaningless draw in their final qualifier. Emile Heskey will be lauded as the stand-out candidate for the Golden Boot.

1) Chelsea win everything playing ‘rubbish’ football

It won’t matter if they score 200 goals in the league, win the quadruple, and claim the top three spots in the FIFA World Player of the Year vote – at some point during the season, one of those ex-players who call themselves ‘commentators’ will declare that Carlo Ancelotti’s Italian pragmatism makes for a brand of football that would make Otto Rehhagel sick.

Torres Signs New Contract With Liverpool FC

Liverpool striker Fernando Torres has signed a new contract, agreed last season, which will put him on £110,000 a week.

Liverpool loudly trumpeted that agreement in May, and the new deal includes a one-year extension option that could keep Torres at Anfield until 2014.

The 25-year-old Spaniard, who is expected to recover from an ankle injury to play at Spurs on Sunday, has seen his wages rise from £70,000 a week to £110,000 under the new agreement.

Under the terms of his original deal, Torres had the option of having his wages reviewed this summer and Liverpool have been quick to make sure there is no hint of a problem, aware that Manchester City, Manchester United and Chelsea have shown interest in the player.

Manager Rafael Benitez said: "Fernando is one of the best strikers in the game and, at his age, can only get better.

"Every major side would want him in their team, but he has shown how much he wants to achieve success at Liverpool by committing his future to the club. He’s a special talent, but still has the hunger to improve his game."

Torres was already tied to Anfield for the next four seasons, having signed a six-year deal in 2007.

He goes into the new season expecting rather than hoping Liverpool will win the title.

He said: "We have no problem beating Manchester United or Chelsea but it is games like Sunday’s at Tottenham where we need to show our real title intentions.

"Tottenham is not an easy place to go but these are games we must be winning if this is to finally be our year.

"I am not thinking can we win the title, I am thinking we have to win the title.

"We came so close last season but for many of the players it was their first time experiencing the pressure of a Premier League title race."

Benitez Says Mascherano's Happy To Help Liverpool FC Title Pursuit

Liverpool FC boss Rafa Benitez believes Javier Mascherano will shrug off the disappointment of his aborted move to Barcelona to help spearhead the Reds' title challenge.

Benitez's side begin their Premier League campaign against Tottenham on Sunday and Benitez is relieved to be able to call upon Argentina captain Mascherano for the match, having lost fellow midfield lynchpin Xabi Alonso to Real Madrid.

While Alonso was eventually granted his dream £30million move to Spain, Mascherano was told he would not be leaving Anfield despite expressing his preference for a switch to Barcelona.

Benitez admits now that there were many times during a fraught summer, during which he believes Mascherano’s head was turned by his international colleague Lionel Messi.

But with the player still having more than three years left on his contract, Benitez was in a position of strength when refusing to do business.

Speaking about the saga, Benitez said: "Javier has a very good friend in the national team and that is Messi.

"Messi was on to him every day and that is not easy, but Javier knows what we think of him and he will be okay."

Now that Mascherano has opted to stay, Benitez is expected to work out a new contract for the player, who had appeared to fall out of love with life in England in the light of Barca’s interest.

Benitez added: "I talked with Javier, his agent and Barca. It is normal they see him as such a good player, and an option for them.

"We told Javier he was so important for us and we wanted to keep him. We were not talking about any price.

"He was a bit disappointed as it was a fantastic opportunity with a big club. But he is happy here, and as a player and a person you can trust him 100%."

Benitez, meanwhile, believes as many as six teams could be challenging for the top four places this season, potentially disrupting the traditional order.

He said: "We can always talk about the top four, but Manchester City are doing a very good job and have bought some excellent players. I can understand why Mr Ferguson at Manchester United is a little bit worried.

"Aston Villa and Tottenham have also spent some money, so there will five, six or more fighting now.

"But we have signed Glen Johnson and Alberto Aquilani, that is all, we are different.

"The important thing was to try and extend the contracts of key players. And that is what we did.

"We had 86 points last season to finish second, and we have more or less the same squad, so maybe we can do the same again or better.

"But we will need to improve at home, and Johnson as an attacking full-back is the sort of player who can make the difference in difficult home matches when opponents are defending.

"We have lost Sami Hyypia, he will be a big loss because he was a good player, but if Skrtel and Carragher are fit I thought we could manage.

"As for our title chances, the players know we were very close last season and they want to improve. We know what this team can achieve and they will be ready."

Rafa Benitez Was Key To Me Coming To Anfield - Alberto Aquilani

Alberto Aquilani has revealed that the chance to work with Rafa Benitez convinced him to sign for Liverpool.

The Italian had spent a decade with his boyhood club Roma.

“Rafa was the deciding factor for me and I am proud he has chosen me,” he said.

“I was very aware of him and appreciated the quality of his work long before this opportunity presented itself. I really like the way the team plays.

“Everyone has helped me so much since I arrived, but especially the manager and (chief scout) Eduardo (Macia).

“They have made me feel at home and made me see how important I am to them.

“I have met some of the players but not many because of the internationals. I know they are going to be great and I won’t have any problems fitting in.”

Meanwhile, Aquilani has been assured by Italy boss Marcello Lippi that his switch to Merseyside won't jeopardise his World Cup dream. He already has 11 caps for his country.

“I spoke to Lippi and he reassured me it won’t be a problem,” he said.

"He said I'm coming to play for a very important team and that if I do well here he will definitely call me up. The World Cup is a big objective for me but in order to be there I have to play well for Liverpool.”